Tag Archives: Scientist

Lovecraftian Scientists: The Scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” or also known as Scientists Behaving Badly

Colour_IgorVitkovskly The Colour by Igor Vitkovskly

Crawford Tillinghast was a vengeful mad scientist, while Herbert West was cool and calculating, willing to use anyone as a test subject for his reanimation experiments.  However, of the Lovecraftian scientists reviewed to date, the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” are probably the most dangerous. Instead of being individual “mad scientists” the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” are elitists and do not have that critical, open minded attitude required in science. Put another way by Carl Sagan, “It pays to keep an open mind but not so open your brains fall out.”

In “The Colour Out of Space” a meteor falls to Earth, landing on farmland owned by Nahum Gardner. Nahum and his wife bring three professors from Miskatonic University to the farm to examine the meteor the day after it arrives. Nahum said the meteor shrank in size and in spite of having some physical evidence to back this claim (“It had shrunk, Nahum said as he pointed out the big brownish mound above the ripped earth and charred grass near the archaic well-sweep in his front yard…”) the professors simply stated “…stones do not shrink.” Thus, the professors would not even entertain or consider the idea that Nahum may be correct, even with the supporting evidence.

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The professors collect a sample of the meteor and place it in a pail since it is still generating heat almost a day after it landed on the farm.  Even when Ammi Pierce’s wife notes that the fragment appears to be burning and getting smaller in the pail, the professors still think nothing of the claim that the meteor is shrinking. Their response to Ms. Pierce’s observation of the shrinking sample was “…perhaps they had taken less than they thought.” This total disregard to observations made by non-scientists is a form of professional elitism that is more extreme than that of the protagonist in “Beyond the Walls of Sleep.”

The professors take the sample back to Miskatonic University to run a series of physical and chemical tests with very baffling results. I have reviewed the science behind these tests in previous articles reviewing the “The Colour Out of Space,” so such matters are not discussed here. After the strange results of their tests on the meteorite sample, the three scientists return to the Gardner Farm and visit the impact site once again. Now they final admit that the meteorite is shrinking, noting that its diameter was not barely five feet even though the previous day it was seven feet.

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When the scientists collect another sample, they gouge more deeply into the meteorite and uncover a strange globule that has the same strange colour found when they heated and placed the first sample under a spectroscope. One of the professors hits the globule with a hammer and it bursts with a “nervous little pop.” Nothing visible was emitted and no other globules were found in the meteorite. The scientist take the second sample to the laboratories at Miskatonic, run some more tests but still could not identify the exact composition of the sample and “…at the end of the tests the college scientists were forced to own that they could not place it. It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws.”

IMG_2687                                                 An illustration of some of the chemical tests run by the Miskatonic University scientists in the Necronomicon Press (2015) chapbook of “The Colour Out of Space.” Illustration by Jason C. Eckhardt

By the third visit, after an evening thunderstorm, none of the meteorite was left – it completely vanished. At this point the scientists just give up and lose interest, which shocks me. Any other scientist that I know would have at least sampled the surrounding soil and test it to see if it emitted the same strange colour as the meteorite. This would have at least supported the hypothesis that the meteorite somehow contaminated the soil with some type of volatile compound, which may also contaminate the associated groundwater. However, after all of the direct physical evidence disappeared so did the Miskatonic scientists.

Even in the following spring when some of the locals brought to their attention that the skunk-cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) were exhibiting some abnormal growth and possessed some strange colours, the scientists’ response was, “The plants were certainly odd, but all skunk-cabbages are more or less odd in shape and odour and hue. Perhaps some mineral element from the stone had entered the soil, but it would soon be washed away.” Really? Skunk-cabbage is a strange looking plant that is foul-smelling and is one of the first plants to be observed leafing out near streams and in wetlands in late winter / early spring. However, it does not emit a strange colour. None of the scientists from Miskatonic hypothesized that the meteorite may have contaminated the soil and groundwater, after hearing about the skunk-cabbage emitting a strange colour?

Skunk Cabbage                    Skunk-cabbages emerging from the ground in early spring

I find the absence of any measurable degree of curiosity by the Miskatonic scientists to be absolutely stunning. The meteor hit the Gardner Farm in June so the student body was home for the summer. By spring, classes were back in session. Is it possible that the scientists had a passing interest in the meteorite because they had more time on their hands over the summer months but once the academic year began this interest waned? If true, find this explanation sad to say the least.

The scientists continued to express their lack of scientific curiosity through the rest of the story, and part of this can be attributed to an “ivory tower” attitude that the reports coming from the Gardner Farm was just superstitious folklore. Even toward the end of the tale when an investigation team was assembled to inspect the farm, none of the Miskatonic scientists were involved. The team comprised of Ammi Pierce (neighbor of the Gardner’s), three police officers, the County coroner, a medical examiner and the veterinarian who treated the Gardner animals. Were the Miskatonic scientists so ineffective in their past dealings with the meteorite and its impacts that no one even bothered to ask them to join the investigation?

the_colour_out_of_space_by_verreaux-d59u4pb The Colour Out of Space by Verreaux (www.deivantart.com)

Finally, when samples of the residual dust left on the farm was taken to Miskatonic University, it gave off the same colorimetric spectrum observed under the spectroscope as the meteorite samples. This supported the idea of some ecological contamination. I completely understand that ecosystem ecology was in its infancy in the early 20th century, but this is some pretty compelling data to support the idea that the mortality associated with the farm was directly attributed to the meteorite and the idea that any mineral element would simply be washed away as being incorrect. Thus, it is surprising to me that there is no additional sampling or concern over more widespread contamination.

To conclude, I find the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” to be the worst in their profession, at least within the tales of Lovecraft. They have a very disparaging attitude toward non-scientists, possess no natural scientific curiosity and were extremely ineffective in terms of providing any sort of construction guidance over the occurrences at the farm. The Miskatonic scientists were confronted with something outside of our reality or at least within the realm of our understanding of physical / chemical laws and instead of trying to understand it they simply gave up when back to grading papers. Such a lack of curiosity and concern over the environment or individuals can lead to variety of problems such as the spread of invasive species or the contamination of drinking water. Thus, I find the three scientists from Miskatonic University in Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” to the be most dangerous of all of his scientists.

untitled2                   Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” by Asahi Superdry (http://www.deviantart.com)

Next time we are going to begin a detailed, chapter by chapter review of the science associated with At the Mountains of Madness, where some Miskatonic University scientists are shown in a better light. Thank you and Happy New Year! Fred

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Lovecraftian Scientists: The Downfall of Dr. Herbert West

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As the protagonist suggested in “From Beyond,” a scientist should be a “frigid and impersonal investigator…” While Crawford Tillinghast did not exhibit these traits as a scientist, this certainly described Herbert West, at least in the initial chapters of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Initially West is your typically cold scientist, closely following the rigors of the Scientific Method. However, as the story proceeds, West’s fanatical pursuit of knowledge is only exacerbated and pushed to the extreme. West started his experiments with animals and then moves to human cadavers. Each experiment with a human corpse revealed that the body must be very fresh with little or no decay.

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West’s obsession with conquering death and need for a fresh body eventually led to him actually murdering someone – a salesman traveling to Bolton Worsted Mills. West killed and the preserved the salesman with an embalming fluid and waited for his friend to return to inject his reanimation serum. When the salesman was revived, it was obvious from his reaction that West murdered him.  Although West’s general philosophic perspective was consistently described as that of an absolute mechanistic materialist, this was still a major shift in his scientific endeavors.  While his extreme materialism may have fostered his general amoral attitude toward life and humanity, West was always grounded in the Scientific Method and that the ultimate goal of the reanimation serum is to bring people back to life. This jump from a scientist working with biological material that happens to come along his way, to one who actively produces the needed biological material is Lovecraft’s example of what happens when a scientist is the “frigid and impersonal investigator…” completely devoid of any humanity, compassion or empathy.

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Herbert West used the embryonic cells of an exotic reptile in his experiments (illustration by Steve Maschuck)

Once West murdered to produce is needed biological material, even his foundation grounded in the Scientific Method began to erode. Toward the end of the story West goes into full “mad scientist” mode, thinking up “what if” scenarios in his mind.  While his use of some embryonic cell material from an exotic reptile had some potential promise to function as stem cells, he wasted this in his mad experiments.  The puffy reptilian cell matter sounded like it could function as undifferentiated stem cells and may have had great applications in repairing nerve damage, producing skin grafts for burn victims and possibly even re-growing lost limbs. However, playing with his discovery like a morbid little child, West experimented on body parts with no regard for the ethics or morality of such actions. It reminds one of Dr. Ian Malcolm’s quote from Jurassic Park shown below.

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Obviously toward the end of “Herbert West Reanimator” all of West’s experiments catch up with him. Like Dr. Frankenstein or the Elder Things West was excited to create but did not care to deal with the responsibility of being the creator of such life. In the case of the Elder Things, the shoggoths were essentially biological tools that were created for specific functions. However, once the shoggoths began to attain consciousness, the Elder Things did not want the responsibility of coming to terms with this in a mature manner. In the case of West and Frankenstein it was the act of creation that was so exciting. The created being was merely an annoying by-product. In West’s case we see where a completely uncaring, amoral, mechanistic, materialistic attitude can result in a mad scientist. However, the mad scientist of Herbert West seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum when compared to the passionate and vengeful mad scientist of Crawford Tillinghast.

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Experiments on parts

Next time we will discuss another type of scientist in Lovecraft’s tales – the group of scientists who conducted the initial investigations in “The Colour Out of Space.” Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraftian Scientists: The Mad Genius of Crawford Tillinghast

Crawford Tillinghast one of the most notorious scientist in Lovecraft’s tales. In addition, Tillinghast is one of the most easily identified relative to science fiction or weird fiction in general. Tillinghast is the “mad genius” scientist. While Tillinghast may not be first of this character type to appear in weird fiction, he is certainly one of the first relative to application of “modern,” early 20th century science and the attitudes the general public had toward science.

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First, is it very easy to compare Tillinghast to Frankenstein, however, I would caution one to understand that this comparison is more appropriate for Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 Universal movie rather than Mary Shelly’s novel. In Shelly’s novel Frankenstein is more of a metaphysical scientist, whose creation of a man is a broader line mix of alchemy and science. In addition, Frankenstein in the novel is more of a narrative of someone who abandons their responsibilities associated with their creation. Like many of the literary metaphysical scientists, Frankenstein worked in isolation to produce his creation.  I read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein for the first time last February and I highly recommend it!

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In contrast to the novel, Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 film is a medical scientist who wanted to create life from dead tissue and body parts. Here the mad genius trope is exemplified, particular when his creation comes to life. Dr. Frankenstein shouts, “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” While initially extremely pleased with the success of his experiments, Dr. Frankenstein largely abandons his responsibilities for his creation, very similar to Frankenstein in the novel, when compilations arise. In contrast to the Frankensteins, Tillinghast takes full responsibility for his creation and discovery. For the sake of ease when I mention Dr. Frankenstein, this is in reference to the movie version of the character.

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Crawford Tillinghast displays three of the most common tropes we associate with this type of literary scientist.  First, he is a “mad genius” who is so intelligent that he thinks “outside the box.” He or she puts together concepts or ideas that look ridiculous or unfruitful to the rest of the scientific community. Second, they work mostly in isolation since their ideas are thought of as so unconventional. Both Tillinghast and the Frankensteins display this trope and this is commonly exhibited in many science fiction movies such as The Fly (both the original and the Cronenberg remake) and in Ex Machina. Third, there is the thought of “getting revenge” against those within the scientific community who disagreed with him or her. This revenge can be as simple and disproving the scientific community or it can be as extreme and killing those who disagreed with him or she by using their creation as the murder weapon. Tillinghast displays this to an extreme degree.

In “From Beyond” Tillinghast invites his friend to his home after the creation of his “electrical machine.” Ten weeks earlier the protagonist disagreed, even protested, Tillinghast’s scientific ideas, which sent Tillinghast into a fanatical rage. Tillinghast throws one of his few friends out of the house. Clearly, right at the beginning of the story we understand that while a genius, Tillinghast is mental unstable.

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From Beyond 01 – Crawford Tillinghast by Iposterbot (www.deviantart.com)

Early in the tale the protagonist states, “That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action; despair, if he fails in his quest, and terrors unutterable and unimaginable if he succeed.” While any scientist needs to be objective and impersonal in developing their hypotheses and in the design and execution of experiments, all scientists (at least the ones I know) have a passion for what they do. All scientists have a common interest and passion for wanting to understand and know more about our world and universe. Additionally, within the realm of pure science (the type of science that Lovecraft was more interested in) an experiment that disproves an established hypothesis is not considered a failure; it still provides useful information that can be used to better understand our reality and help further develop the existing hypothesis or generate new ones. Thus, while Tillinghast is clearly mentally unstable, I think the protagonist has a very melodramatic attitude about individuals who pursue scientist investigations.

Toward the end of the tale when Tillinghast turns on the electrical device, we realize his ultimate goal is to use the protagonist’s scientific curiosity against him to ensure is death. Essentially, the “thing” that is coming once the device is on will destroy a person if they see it. Tillinghast states that he “…almost saw them, but I knew how to stop.” He asks the protagonist if he curious to see the approaching thing and even taunts him as a professional. “You are curious? I always knew you were no scientist.” In this situation Tillinghast wants to kill one of his few friends because as he states, “You tried to stop me; you discouraged men when I needed every drop of encouragement I could get; you were afraid of the cosmic truth, you damned coward, but now I’ve got you!”

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Again, Tillinghast exhibit the three tropes we find so common in the mad scientist cliché. First, extremely intelligent but mentally unhinged to some degree, resulting in unconventional ideas and concepts. Second, working in seclusion, in an almost hermit-like existence; such pursuits tend to be more associated with metaphysical investigations instead of scientific. Science, particularly since the turn of the last century, is a very community-based endeavors. Papers and studies are critically reviewed by peers and experiments are repeated by other to confirm the resulting findings. Third, there is a need or desire for revenge against those who either did not encourage their research or wronged them in some capacity. This formula for the mad scientist would be repeated countless times in both literature and film. However, in Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” Crawford Tillinghast may be one of the earliest examples of this, as least within the development of modern science in the early 20th century.

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The Electrical Device in “From Beyond” by Steve Maschuck

Next time we will discuss Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot, the science writer who Lovecraft drew from for many of the concepts expressed in “From Beyond.”  Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraftian Scientists – Introduction and Beyond the Wall of Sleep

Science is important component of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly his later tales. In fact, Lovecraft was one of the pioneers of weird fiction, integrating cutting edge science (at least for the time) into his stories. This is one of the reasons why Fritz Lieber called him the “Literary Copernicus” of horror fiction. He was known to revise / modify stories to account for new scientific information that was made available to the public. Probably his more famous instance of doing this is associated with identifying Yuggoth has being the dwarf-planet Pluto discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.

andrei-kedrin-clyde-tombaugh-800 Clyde Tombaugh by Andrei Kedrin

For someone who is known for creating mood and atmosphere and generally ignores character development, Lovecraft utilized a variety of tropes in representing scientists in his stories. Thus, for the next set of articles, we will review the variety of scientists that appear in Lovecraft’s stories. The idea for such a review came to me after moderating a panel at the NecronomiCon in August of this year; the panel was called Miskatonic U. and the Mythos and included Sean Branney, Will Murray, Anne Pillsworth, Robert Waugh, Douglas Wynne. I really enjoyed the conversation about Miskatonic University and its staff and thought a more detailed assessment of Lovecraft’s scientist was in order.

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For now, this review will focus solely on scientists. Lovecraft character investigators frequently included academics, such as Albert N. Wilmarth who was a professor of literature at Miskatonic University in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or others such as Thornton the psychic investigator in “The Rats in the Walls.” Again, for this review we will focus solely on scientists and medical doctors. Our first review is for “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

The protagonist in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is some type of medical intern at a state psychopathic institution. The unnamed protagonist is fascinated with dreams and considers are dream life to be just as important as our waking life. He causally refers to Freud’s work in the statement “-Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism- “. As noted by Leslie S. Klinger (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, 2014), the statement on Freud did not appear in the first publication of the story; Lovecraft added it later and it was skeptical reference to Freud’s sexual interpretations of dreams.

freudntitled                                                              Dr. Sigmund Freud

In “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Joe Slater is having strange spells where is acts like an entirely different person and during one of these spells he ends up killing someone. In turn, Joe is caught and taken to the nearest gaol (a place to hold people accused or convicted of a crime; I had to look that one up) where an alienist by the name of Dr. Barnard evaluates his condition. Again, as mentioned by Klinger, an alienist was a doctor who focused on treated mental diseases. Originally alienists were limited to treating those considered mad in asylums, essentially custodians of the insane. However, by 1919 alienists were focusing more on the healing of insanity and mental / nervous diseases (Klinger, 2014), which led to the science of psychology.

BTWOS_www.tobiastrautner.de The finding of Joe Slater after the murder in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” by Tobias Trautner (www.tobiastrautner.de)

Joe Slater was eventually moved to the institution where the protagonist is an intern. While the protagonist did express concern and empathy for Joe, he also consistently expresses varying degrees of snide classism when describing Joe as slow, dim-witted, a degenerate and white trash (Tour De Lovecraft by Kenneth Hite, 2011). Joe is described as having blue eyes and blonde hair so this is clearly a case of classism and not classism / racism. As Lovecraft frequently does, here he is utilizing the idea what science was to some in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is, scientific research should be done only by those who could afford the time, which included the wealthy, white men of society. To Lovecraft, women, minorities and the poor were not capable of conducting science. However, this idea is clearly due to the fact that women, minorities and the poor were not typically exposed to or trained in the scientific disciplines. It was not a genetic predisposition that limited the masses to understand or utilize science, it was not allowing everyone to receive an education in scientific matters. However, in Lovecraft’s mind, well ingrained in the attitudes and philosophy of western thought in the 18th century, such notions were not even considered. This really comes through in the protagonist’s description of Joe Slater’s limited mental capacity in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

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Toward the end of the story the protagonist uses some type of strange transmitting / receiving device that can transfer brain waves from one individual to another. Again, much of the scientific explanation of the device is largely based on scientific concepts developed or discovered in the 18th of 19th century. At one point the protagonist suggests that “…human thought consists basically of atomic or molecular motion, convertible into ether waves of radiant energy like heat, light and electricity.” The concept of “luminiferous ether” was largely dispelled by 1887 by experiments conducted by Michelson and Morley, which was further confirmed in 1905 by Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.

While the protagonist did express empathy for Joe Slater, he still behave in a cruel manner, forcing Joe to participate in an experiment while he is dying. However, the results of this experiment did unnerve the protagonist to the point where his supervisor at the institution, Dr. Fenton, prescribed nerve powder and gave him half a year’s vacation. Thus, the concluding thought on the unnamed protagonist in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” is that while he expressed sympathy for Joe Slater, he certainly expressed a classist attitude in thinking of Joe as mentally limited white trash. The protagonist did experience what many investigators in Lovecraft’s tale experience; that is, having their view of the universe and reality substantially altered by uncovering some truth. Additionally, this resulted in the protagonist experiencing a near nervous breakdown, which to some degree seems justified since he was essentially using Joe Slater as a laboratory animal for his experiment on brain waves and dreams while he was dying.

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Next time we will discuss the astronomers who were involved in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” Thank you – Fred.